Minutes before the start of my screening of The Darkness, Jason Blum’s latest micro-budget horror movie, a thirtysomething woman entered the theater with four little kids behind her, none of whom appeared to be in preschool yet. I had already seen all of them in the lobby, where the oldest boy in the group threw a fit after being told he couldn’t have a certain kind of candy. I assumed they were there to see Captain America: Civil War, Jungle Book or Zootopia. Instead, their mother (I assume) brought them to see a new Kevin Bacon horror movie, and, wouldn’t you know it, they sat in the same row as me.
Suddenly, my experience of seeing The Darkness massively changed. Now I had two things to watch: The movie, and the adorably terrified reactions to the movie on the faces of the little kids. That’s not to say I somehow take joy in the terror of little children. It’s more that as someone who started watching PG-13 and R-Rated horror movies well before the MPAA would have liked me to I am always curious when I see little kids at horror movies (it happens more than you’d think). I remember convincing my step-dad to take me to Alien 3 by promising it wouldn’t give me nightmares, and then promptly proceeding to have nightmares for at least a week, much to my step-dad’s annoyance. How many sleepless nights were ahead of these little kids, I wondered.
Probably none, as it turns out, because The Darkness is not a particularly scary movie. It’s barely even committed to being a horror movie, despite its surplus of cheap jump scares. Instead, it is far more interested in being a family drama in which the escalating conflicts between wife and husband, mother and daughter, etc. just happen to be supernaturally influenced. That doesn’t in and of itself make it a bad or disappointing movie. The problem is that its two halves, the family drama and horror, never come together in a completely satisfying way, and we are left with a toothless, Poltergeist riff which might only scare the youngest among us.
The basic plot is this: A family of four (led by Radha Mitchell and Kevin Bacon as the parents) go on a trip to the Grand Canyon, and shortly after their return strange things start happening in their house, probably tied to those mysterious rocks the autistic son (Gotham‘s David Mazouz) brought back with him. Along the way, the mother’s alcoholism, father’s infidelity and daughter’s (Lucy Fry, so good as Oswald’s wife in 11.22.63) eating disorder will be brought to light, and a Zelda Rubinstein-like healer may or may not be their savior.
As befits the nature of a Jason Blum-produced film, one upper middle-class house is the primary setting, and several recognizable actors who clearly agreed to work for practically nothing in exchange for a cut of the backend pop up. In this case, that would be Bacon as the male lead, Paul Reiser as his unbearable boss and Ming-Na Wen as his boss’ soulful wife.
It’s been a long wait for their financial gamble to pay off, though. As Hollywood Reporter revealed, Jason Blum cranks these movies out so cheaply and quickly that his distributor, Universal Studios, doesn’t know what to do with all of them, meaning many simply sit on the shelf until a release date or VOD deal can be finalized. The Darkness is probably one such a movie, unless there’s some other reason it’s only just now coming out even though it finished filming almost two years ago exactly.
I can see why they dragged their feet on this one. It’s a haunted house (or haunted family/object) movie, but it was made at a time when there were probably too many of those around (Insidious, Sinister, Paranormal Activity, the Poltergeist remake, The Babadook, Jessabelle, The Conjuring, Annabelle, Oculus, etc.). Moreover, it’s far more interested in examining what it means to be a family raising an autistic child than it is in indulging its audience with expected genre scares.
The general idea is the rocks the boy took from the Canyon contain five demon spirits who once haunted the Anasazi people. These demons took the form of animals (a wolf, a crow, etc.) and supernaturally manipulated the people into killing one another by bringing out their inner darkness. In short, the demons don’t kill; they trick us into killing each other, and they always walk away from it all having claimed the most innocent among the tribe. Newly freed from their Canyon prison, they now aim to claim the autistic boy as their own, but not before offing the rest of the family.
We learn all of this from an internet video which plays in full at least three times, as The Darkness proves incapable of trusting its audience to follow its very simple plot. Similarly, the manner in which the family might defeat the demons is needlessly spelled out for us multiple times (once would have sufficed). On the opposite end, the film trusts us just a little too much when it comes to the mother’s alcoholism, which is established in the first minute of the film but isn’t referenced again until some 75 minutes later when she quickly examines the liquor section of a grocery store.
The whole film is a slow burn. For example, it’s over an hour in before the mother cues up the the obligatory internet research montage to finally explore her hunch that the house might be haunted. This gradual build up allows for plenty of character work, revealing why exactly Bacon probably agreed to make the film. There is a wealth of rich family drama to play with here, all pivoting off the harsh realities of planning your life around your autistic child/sibling (not that the film ever delves into that with the dramatic ambition of an Oscar-contender or anything). Radha Mitchell stands out as the clearly long-suffering mother who soldiers on with grace and endless passion for her children.
However, at some point you sense writer-director Greg McLean (Wolf Creek) and his co-writers Shayne Armstrong and Shane Krause were more interested in the family drama than the horror. The two halves of the movie are supposed to intersect with the notion that the demons are using the child to escalate the already simmering tensions within the family, but their arguments never come remotely close to homicidal meaning what we are told about the demons is never fully realized in the drama playing out before us. These people clearly aren’t going to kill each other.
In fact, many of the confrontations which occur within the family seem like conflicts they’d be having anyway (e.g., the daughter suffers under the burden of having a special needs younger brother who naturally demands more of her parents’ attentions, the mother and father differ over how best to discipline the boy when he misbehaves, etc.). If anything, the demons simply helped them have some tough conversations they’d been putting off for too long. Maybe they’re not evil at all but instead tough-love family counselors who just happen to be invisible to everyone but autistic children?
When the plot does finally escalate into full-on Poltergeist territory, far, far later into the film than you’d expect, it feels more like it’s going through the motions of its genre as opposed to following through with any real conviction.
So, how did the little kids respond to this oddly family friendly horror movie? It’s hard to say. One little boy got up and walked around the aisle several times before sitting on his mother’s lap. The rest of them stayed perfectly silent, just like the rest of the crowd. The best exchange I overheard came during the first couple of minutes when the boy asked “Who are all of these people?” only to be told “They’re Kevin Bacon’s friends.” When the demons finally arrived in the film’s final third, the same boy announced, “Kevin Bacon’s new friends are mean.” Not mean enough, though.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Darkness is very interested in being a family drama in which the escalating conflicts between wife and husband, mother and daughter, etc. just happen to be supernaturally influenced. The problem is that its two halves, the family drama and horror, never come together in a completely satisfying way, and we are left with a toothless, Poltergeist riff which might only scare the youngest among us.
Actually, as of this writing there aren’t enough reviews for there to be a consensus yet. Only 35% of the site’s readers liked the movie, if that matters.